Originated from flamenco, the duende is a fundamental concept to truly understand the Spanish art, including the guitar. In this essay, I am going to seek the idea of the duende in the words of Federico García Lorca.
Federico García Lorca gave the famous lecture called Theory and Play of the Duende in Buenos Aires, Argentina in 1933. The duende is usually associated with the flamenco culture, but Lorca defines it as a universal artistic concept.
Theory and Play of the Duende:
I quote three fragments below from the conference.
The old Gypsy dancer La Malena once heard Brailowsky play a fragment of Bach, and exclaimed: —Olé! That has Duende!
Manuel Torre, a man who had more culture in his veins than anyone I have ever known, on listening to Falla play his own Nocturno del Generalife, said this splendid sentence: —All that has dark sounds has Duende.
Those dark sounds are the mystery, the roots that cling to the mire that we all know, that we all ignore, but from which comes the very substance of art.
Manuel Torre (Manuel Soto Loreto) was a legendary Gypsy flamenco singer. Although he was illiterate, he possessed a deep knowledge of all his art.
Here, Lorca reveals that the Duende is identical to the dark notes or the force of Paganini’s music.
Dark sounds. The countryman of Spain said, agreeing with Goethe who in speaking of Paganini hit on the definition of the Duende: A mysterious force that everyone feels and no philosopher has explained.
As mentioned above, black (or sometimes dark) is one of the favorite metaphors of Lorca's for duende. In the poem The six strings, Lorca describes the body of the guitar as the black wooden cistern (read the previous essay: Federico García Lorca and the guitar - Generation of ’27 – Part 3).
Angel and Muse come from outside us; the Angel brings a light, and the Muse gives a form (Hesiod learned from her). Metal leaf or folds of the tunic, it is her norm that the poet receives in his laurel grove. However, the Duende has to be aroused from the furthest corners of the blood.
As well as many other artists, Lorca was deeply influenced by Greek culture. It is interesting that Lorca reinterpreted the symbolism and gave new roles to Angel and Muse. According to Lorca, Angel symbolizes the grace and the inspiration (of Garcilaso), Muse represents the intelligence (of Góngora), and the Duende comes from inside. Marie Laffranque, a Lorca specialist, says that the Duende is the pain itself, the wounding, and no resigned conscience of pain, evil, and misfortune. Blood is another symbolism that Lorca uses frequently, and it means life.
The Duende, by contrast, won’t appear if he doesn’t see the possibility of death (…) Angel and Muse flee, with violin or measure, and the Duende wounds us, and in our trying to heal that wound that never heals, there is what is inexplicable, what is invented out of a man’s work.
Lorca refused any aesthetics of Realism that objects interpretation. Lorca believed that referring to the reality was clearly not good enough for a poem; it was neccesary to have metaphors to symbolize and reinterpret it.
The Duende, because of its mortal character, makes the art united and easier to communicate. Thus, the duende will make the art transcendental.
The magical virtue of a poem consists in always being filled with Duende, to baptize with the dark water all those who look at it, since with Duende it is easier to love, to understand, and be certain of being loved, and being understood, and this struggle for expression and communication of the expression, in poetry, sometimes gain fatal characters.
As all the quotes above demonstrate that the Duende is universal because it has nothing to do with social status, nationality, or education, neither is it possible to acquire by studying or training. It is something very human that we all have in our blood, but it hardly appears. Lorca tells us that true art will only happen when the three elements, wisdom, inspiration and the Duende are united.
To finish this essay, I’d like to quote a small fragment of the prologue from Impressions and Landscapes (1918) that gives us a clear idea of his aesthetic. Lorca wrote this work right after gave up his dream of becoming a musician and dedicated to his music teacher Antonio Segura Masa (read the previous essay).
Poetry exists in all things, in what is ugly, in what is beautiful, and in what is repugnant. What is difficult is to know how to discover it, and to awake the deep lakes of the soul. What is admirable of a spirit is to receive an emotion and interpret it in various ways, all of them are different and contrary.
Cover Photo: Courtesy of Federico García Lorca Foundation